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We keep hearing about how on-board audio codecs have closed the quality gap with discrete cards, and perhaps from a signal-to-noise ratio and frequency response standpoint this is largely true. But from an overall subjective standpoint, there’s no way we’d trade out our X-Fi card for the audio on your average $200 motherboard. The driver robustness and quality of the signal post-processing on something like the X-Fi runs circles around your run of the mill Realtek implementation. Slap on a decent set of headphones and listen to the two side-by-side. The difference is obvious.
We also know from plenty of first-hand experience that even a zippy quad-core CPU isn’t always enough to save integrated audio from the glitches and drops that can occur when, say, another app fires up and grabs an outsized portion of system resources for a few seconds. With that said, just how much horsepower does an audio processor need in order to make sure that the CPU isn’t impacted by audio loads? Good question, and Creative isn’t anxious to quantify an answer. Rather, the company is content to pile on a host of new “3D” post-processing features and imply that a quad-core audio processor is needed to shoulder these new tasks. Sure, four cores is probably overkill, but it’s not really about the hardware. It’s about the amazing effects, and this is where Creative shines brightest.
The old X-Fi suite of software has, with the Recon3D generation, been replaced by THX TruStudio Pro equivalents and improvements. The Surround and Crystalizer tools return, which are excellent at simulating a 360-degree sonic environment and filling in frequencies often lost during file compression. THX TruStudio Pro Smart Volume is largely a normalization tool for avoiding excessively loud or quiet content. People who struggle to make out dialog against background noise (doubly troublesome if you lack a center channel) will appreciate the Dialog Plus enhancements, and TruStudio Pro Bass fills in more bass range material, although we’re not sure how this differs from the bass enhancement in Crystallizer.
Many voice-based clients, even Skype, include respectable echo cancelation technologies, but these consume CPU cycles. The Recon3D performs echo cancelation on-card. Moreover, Creative uses a beamforming-based microphone approach it calls Focus to dampen background noise.
The Recon3D Fatal1ty Professional shown here includes the beamforming microphone; the plain Recon3D ($99.99) does not. If you can take a little I.O.U. from Santa, the Fatal1ty Champion model ($199.99) will arrive in January and offer Creative’s I/O connectivity on a bay device box rather than on the card.